The severe suppression of business events has highlighted the critical role the industry plays in stimulating economic activities and its contribution to the wider community. Governments and industry leaders are doing what they can to sustain the industry as recovery begins slowly but surely, in an online/offline form for the time being. By TTGmice reporters
After years of working relentlessly to emphasise its critical contribution to the national and global economy, the business events industry has finally been presented with the perfect opportunity to drive home its point through the Covid-19 pandemic and resulting disruption of business activities.
In July 2020, UFI, The Global Association of the Exhibition Industry, published a damage assessment that estimated full-year losses of at least 158 billion euros (US$185 billion) in total output for the exhibition industry itself as well as all related industries, such as accommodation, restaurants and transportation providers.
The pandemic has also impacted 1.9 million jobs globally, and a minimum of 260 billion euros worth of contracts that were not generated as a result of cancelled and postponed exhibitions this year.
One could expect the true damage to be far deeper, as the exhibitions industry is but just one of the many components of MICE, which also takes in corporate meetings, association congresses as well as incentive and teambuilding events.
A late-2018 study published by the Events Industry Council and conducted by Oxford Economics pegged the value of global business events in 2017 at US$ 1.03 trillion – at the very least, as this amount was based solely on direct spend from meetings and events across more than 15 destinations that included 10 or more people who spent a minimum of four hours in a contracted venue.
While more recent valuation of global business events or the impact from a wide range of cancelled and postponed gatherings are not available at press time, some leading business events in destinations in the Asia-Pacific region have been able to illustrate the severity of economic loss based on pre-pandemic business events performance.
Australia’s business events industry contributes A$35.7 billion (US$25.6 billion) to the national economy, with another A$17.2 billion in value add, and employs over 229,000 people across a range of sectors. Last year, 480,000 business events were held in Australia and over 43 million people attended a business event.
In Singapore, the industry supports more than 34,000 direct and indirect jobs with a value-add of about S$3.8 billion (US$2.8 billion) or about 0.8 percent of the country’s GDP.
High-level intervention is needed in both countries to rescue the devastated business events industry.
The Australian government released an A$50 million Business Events Grants Program where approved business events could apply for grants to cover up to 50 percent of their costs. The Exhibition and Event Association of Australasia (EEAA) is working closely with Business Events Council of Australia and key stakeholders across the industry in the design and roll-out of this support package. EEAA is also behind a Rebuild Strategy since April, which features an #ExpoReady social media campaign and launch of a Covid Safe Operating Framework, revealed EEAA chief executive Claudia Sagripanti.
“We also launched a Young Stars Pathways Program, which provides a range of tools – such as a group coaching programme – to assist young talent in developing skills that facilitate career progression,” said Sagripanti.
In Singapore, where the business events industry is heavily dependent on international gatherings, the government created the S$48 billion (US$35.2 billion) Resilience Budget that provided affected companies with wage support, tax exemptions, increased credit limits and deferred payment schedules, among other forms of assistance.
The Singapore Association of Convention & Exhibition Organisers & Suppliers (SACEOS) is working with government agencies to release an Event Industry Resilience Roadmap (IRR), a public-private partnership that seeks to establish best-in-class standards for the implementation of Singapore Tourism Board’s Safe Business Events Framework; create agile business models with a focus on hybridization; and re-engineer educational pathways and developing targeted programmes for new critical competencies, detailed SACEOS president, Aloysius Arlando.
With the easing of Covid-19 restrictions and where the outbreak is under control, China, Hong Kong SAR, Malaysia, Singapore and Chinese Taipei are seeing the resumption of primarily domestic and online/offline hybrid events.
Domestic and local-international businesses have been driving China’s recovery and in May, an auto show in Changsha – the capital of Hunan province – notched up record sales of 2,391 cars, valued at around US$737milion.
Liu Ping, founder of China Star, one of China’s leading exhibition and convention organisers, shared that three large exhibitions were held in Changsha in May alone.
The Shanghai New International Expo Center (SNIEC) reopened with SEMICON China on June 27, and is seeing a busy calendar of events through the remaining months this year. According to general manager Michael Kruppe, events held at SNIEC this year are seeing only 20 percent less exhibitors and visitors than 2019.
Chinese Taipei allowed the resumption of domestic events in June, and more than 20 exhibitions have taken place since, according to Kitty Wong, president, K&A International and former president, World PCO Alliance.
Wong is working with the Taiwan External Trade Development Council in planning training courses to bring technology companies and event organisers up to speed on the skillsets needed to run hybrid international conferences and exhibitions.
She said a UN event on women’s rights in 2021 and a hybrid congress for women medical practitioners in 2022 were pending.
Also in June, the Malaysian Association of Convention and Exhibition Organisers and Suppliers (MACEOS) proposed the expansion of event capacity to up to 250 participants, instead of just 50, based on the venue’s ability to observe safe distancing.
Vincent Lim, president of both MACEOS and CIS Network, said a few of its B2B and hybrid events in the architecture, innovation and technology sectors were taking place in 4Q2020, and the local authorities were incentivising organisers to look at growing homegrown events and to kickstart new ones.
In August, Singapore pulled off its first pilot hybrid event with 50 on-site delegates observing strict safe distancing requirements. Singapore is accepting applications for exhibitions and conferences with up to 250 participants from October 1. This joins ongoing efforts by the Singapore government to reopen the city-state’s borders to business and essential travel. At press time, Singapore has reciprocal green lanes with Korea (ROK), Japan, six Chinese cities, and Malaysia, as well as made unilateral decisions to welcome visitors from Australia (excluding Victoria state), Vietnam, Brunei Darussalam and New Zealand.
Australia is on track to recovery too, revealed EEAA’s Sagripanti. Business events have restarted in Queensland, Western Australia and South Australia. New South Wales has also started running smaller events, many in a hybrid format. Meanwhile, Victoria has emerged from its second lockdown, and her government has released a reopening roadmap that will see businesses restart again.
A new way to meet
With China as a unique exception, most of the business events resuming in the region are of an online or hybrid nature. The International Congress and Convention Association (ICCA) has converted its 59th ICCA Congress, scheduled for Kaohsiung, Chinese Taipei, China this November, into an online/offline event to ensure maximum participation from its global membership amid continued travel restrictions.
The hybrid event will adopt a ‘hub and spoke’ format which includes the main event in Kaohsiung from November 1 to 3 and seven regional satellite locations worldwide across six weeks from September 22.
Edward Koh, executive director, Conventions, Meetings & Incentive Travel, Singapore Tourism Board, expects the “hybridisation of events…to take off in a significant way not just in Singapore, but globally”.
Fortunately, event organisers today have venues and suppliers that are armed with the technology and facilities that will enable the creation of “entirely new kinds of experiences”, opined Rod Cameron, executive director, Joint Meeting Industry Council (JMIC).
For many event owners and organisers, the opportunity to remain connected with business partners, colleagues and members in an online or hybrid format has resulted in richer exchanges with an expanded audience.
ICCA’s regular Business Exchange, which once brought in small numbers of participants, has seen “huge interest” since going online, revealed Noor Ahmad Hamid, regional director Asia Pacific.
Maryline Marquet, vice president, Asia Pacific Medical Technology Association, which worked with Chab Events to produce the APACMed Virtual Forum in September, said she was able to expand her reach with five global CEOs speaking, compared to only one for its previous editions.
The APACMed Virtual Forum is one of the first hybrid meetings to take place in Singapore, where 50 on-site delegates were joined by a larger number online.
With cost being lower and the global reach better, future hybrid editions will be more sustainable, opined Marquet.
While online and hybrid events will reduce in-destination delegate spend, Business Events Sarawak, acting CEO, Amelia Roziman remains supportive of such gatherings.
She explained: “Our goal is not just to achieve delegate numbers and spending, but to support the interest of the Sarawak government in terms of sectoral, economic and social development. We are focusing on business events that are aligned with Sarawak’s 7 Key Focus Areas, being Urban Development; Social Development; Environmental Development; Re-engineering Economic Growth; Rural Transformation on Agriculture Development; Service Industry; and the Digital Economy.
“In addition, we want to ensure that associations that bring their conventions to Sarawak can build their legacy impacts to transform sectors, communities and the economy,” she elaborated.
Amelia added that Sarawak’s ability to support and facilitate hybrid events would reflect well on the destination, which is “gunning towards being a digitalised state”.
ICCA’s Noor added that even with severely reduced face-to-face interactions, online and hybrid association meetings could continue to plant seeds of economic and societal growth.
“Knowledge conveyed through an online conference or meeting can trigger discussions and ideas that may spark off new research down the road that leads to even deeper knowledge acquisition,” explained Noor.
He added that community outreach programmes built into meetings will continue to see participation, as previous ICCA Congress CSR initiatives were able to obtain donations and support even from members who were unable to attend in person.
“The complete good resulting from an association meeting does not happen immediately. You have the immediate economic impact from a meeting, through spend on travel, accommodation, venue rental, F&B catering, job creation, etc. but the wider positive impact of a meeting on the host destination takes time to materialise,” said Noor.
Face-to-face is best
While online and hybrid event formats are a welcome convenience today, industry leaders maintain a preference for face-to-face business events.
Mark Cochrane, regional manager, Asia-Pacific, UFI, noted that the appetite for face-to-face events “has not diminished except that closed borders, government restrictions and quarantine requirements are holding overseas attendees back”.
He added: “Digital events…cannot replace face-to-face events. They can generate eyeballs, but eyeballs don’t sign contracts. So, the need for quality exhibitions is undiminished. That can be seen by how quickly and eagerly visitors and exhibitors returned to exhibitions in China after restrictions were eased.”
Wong, too, believes that face-to-face business events are irreplaceable, as event technology has been around for years but failed to take off in a big way. “(We are doing it intensely now) only because of Covid-19,” she remarked.
Road to sustained recovery
For business events to truly recover, a few stars need to be aligned – low infection and death rates, good health and safety infrastructure, a vaccine, flexible travel booking conditions, favourable travel insurance policies and stable geopolitics.
JMIC’s Cameron said that organisers and destinations needed to accept that “it is participants that will determine when and how events restart”, hence duty of care and safety assurances must be delivered.
UFI has published a Global Framework for Reopening Business Events document that captures what industry stakeholders and authorities need to do.
“By now, hundreds of exhibitions have taken place again in Asia and Europe. Not one of them has caused an outbreak of Covid-19,” said Cochrane.
“So, we call on governments to work on easing travel restrictions, and on supporting our industry to reopen more and more. UFI has done a great deal of advocacy work highlighting to governments around the world the importance of exhibitions to local economies. After all, trade shows generate trade!
At the same time, Cameron warned that “economics will play a role” in the recovery process.
“Many delegates whose attendance is based on employer support may find that more challenging economic conditions – with deeply indented governments – have reduced or eliminated that support for a period of time,” he said.
“What this means is that we can’t possibly rely on an assumption of pent-up demand to restore momentum (in business events). Instead, we need to create a new rationale that responds to the very different conditions that will inevitably exist even once the pandemic threat has been addressed.
“The entire industry will have to focus on and enhance the ‘added value’ arguments associated with live events to clearly articulate and deliver on the incremental benefits of event attendance and overcome the inertia that is likely to exist even post-pandemic,” he detailed.